Faux Jest

When I was much younger and wanted something badly, such as a cable- knit sweater or a parakeet, I used to tell my mother that everybody had one. "Everyone?" she would inquire, with an arched left eyebrow. "If everyone jumped off the Woolworth building, would you do it, too?" I must have been asked that question hundreds of times.

Three decades later, I can finally give her an answer. No, Mom, I would not jump, even if everyone else mocks me for staying put on the roof, even if everyone, in their frantic need for approval, acts like high-flying lemmings.

In fact, my favorite tale these days is The Emperor's New Clothes, in which a vain ruler is conned into believing that an invisible set of clothing represents the height of fashion, and all his subjects, except one boy, are afraid to tell him the truth. This fable serves as my own parable for explaining popular art in the Nineties, whether it slithers forth on film, between dust jackets, or on the stage. Adjectives come easily: naked, shallow, stupid, a flashy void. Everyone loves Home Alone, and I couldn't sit through twenty minutes of the first installment. Everyone passes up literature for Stephen King and Danielle Steel. And it seems that everyone loves the romantic comedy Beau Jest, now rapidly selling out at the Coconut Grove Playhouse. The show made a small fortune and broke all previous records for attendance at Brian C. Smith's Off-Broadway Theatre; it was the most successful production in the sixteen-year history of the esteemed Victory Gardens Theater in Chicago (where the author, James Sherman, has become Playwright-In-Residence); and it has been playing for three years at the Lambs Theatre in New York.

Critics love it, audiences love it, children love it, dogs would probably love it if they could get in. I wonder just how many souls can fit on top of the Woolworth building.

The opinion I first expressed about the play last winter, when it had its premiäre in this area at the Off-Broadway Theatre, still holds. Allow me to quote from my February 17 critique: "Sherman's play sinks beneath light, into a form of dramatic vapidity that crops up with more and more frequency these days.... [It] makes early Neil Simon plays A the archetype of comedies such as this one A seem like masterpieces from Oscar Wilde or Shakespeare."

The cutesy plot concerns a pretty young kindergarten teacher named Sarah Goldman, constantly beset and upset by archetypal Jewish parents. She also has a divorced brother who's an analyst, and a boyfriend so goyishe his name even rings ultimately Christian: Kris Kringle. Naturally, she can't tell the folks about Kris, so when cornered (by her mother's constant matchmaking) she invents the perfect boyfriend: a Jewish doctor named David Steinberg. But the parents now insist on meeting the glorious Doc, so Sarah contacts the Heaven Sent Escort Service, hiring an out-of-work actor named Bob Schroeder to impersonate the fantasy beau. Unfortunately, Sarah's erroneous assumption that Schroeder is always a Jewish name adds to the complications.

The premise owns promise and the plot moves at a nifty pace, but Sherman sets up his jokes fifteen minutes ahead of time and then never delivers a punch line. Of course Joel the psychologist will ask Dr. Steinberg specific medical questions, of course actor Bob knows about Judaism because right up front we've learned that he performed in Fiddler on the Roof. Of course Mama bosses everyone around and of course Papa moans and groans. Of course, Sarah and Bob fall in love.

For Jews like yours truly, inside jokes abound. At the Passover seder, Abe the father skips most of the necessary prayers and rituals so he can eat sooner. My dad did the same, and my mom scolded him just as Sarah's mom Miriam does. Neither my mom nor Miriam trusts a microwave, and the first question asked about new people tends to be "Is he (she) Jewish?" Because my husband is a WASP, the confusions and misunderstandings through the years have been the same as the ones Sherman draws.

So much for the fact that Sherman possesses a good ear for awkward situations and ethnic eccentricities. But that's not enough. John Patrick Shanley doesn't stop at creating authentic Bronx barflies, just as David Mamet in Glengarry Glen Ross didn't think an accurate portrayal of real estate hustlers would suffice. Better playwrights do something with their characters. Even Neil Simon in Broadway Bound or Lost in Yonkers makes acute comments about the human condition in between the yuks. When Sherman attempts to wax profound in the final scenes and turns the play into a clarion call for individual freedom, it seems forced, contrived. The final happy ending is so sweet and corny it could raise your blood sugar to dangerous levels.

The only good news for the audience is that the Grove's production of the piece, unlike the Off-Broadway Theatre's rendition, is uniformly excellent. Robert Kalfin directs seamlessly, and the entire cast performs with dead-on comic timing and dramatic honesty. Particularly outstanding are ex-New York mayor Ed Koch look-alike Lee Wallace as Abe and Michael Elich as Joel. The simplistic sets, lights, and sound all suit the play well. This means that the interpretive part of Beau Jest can't get any better; too bad the fundamental creation falls so short of authentic farce.

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